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Exhaustion at sea research: a member responds

17 March 2021

Ian Moores responds to research published in the Telegraph last year by World Maritime University that identified systemic failures in hours of work and rest regulations, and considers how adequately rested crew produce an efficient, safe ship with a good safety culture.

Following the publication by Nautilus of an article by the World Maritime University, entitled 'Systematic failures in work and rest hours regulations putting lives at risk', I started to wonder if there has ever been a more damning headline.

The article recognised that the failure to identify the hours of rest of seafarers is 'systemic', from the seafarer reluctant to acknowledge the number of hours they have worked to the shipowner who is unwilling to provide more crew and the port state control officer who completes an inspection on sight of the paperwork (whether it is a true reflection or not).

I have been at sea for over 40 years, from cadet to command, and have navigated the many iterations of hours of work and rest regulations on ships from 10 crew to more than 1,000. In just about every instance there appeared to be not one sufficiently rested crew member. 

Greater expectations

The International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention of 1946 limited seafarers to working 112 hours per fortnight, which equates to an eight-hour day. On top of those working hours it was not unusual to work overtime in the evening and weekends and earn extra money for cargo operations, sailing, crane operations, etc.

Move forward 60 years to the ILO MLC 2006 and there appeared to be a choice for the employer to set employees' working a maximum of 14 hours in any 24 hours, or 72 hours in any seven day period. That's a 10-hour, 16-minute day.

Under the Merchant Shipping (MLC) Hours of Work Regs of 2018 we have lost the working hours option and now have max 14 hours a day between rest periods and not less than 77 hours of rest in the week. This equates to a 13-hour working day. In most cases the pay is consolidated, with no additional pay for the weekends. We have lost the cargo money, in some cases salaries have been capped, and extras such as the Pilot Exemption Certificate additional pay are gone too.

In short, the employer has benefited by almost 50% over the past 60 years, from an eight-hour day to a 13-hour day.

Approximately 1.5 million seafarers worldwide have accepted these working hours and the consequent hours of rest, either willingly or unwittingly.

In these days where human relations, welfare and mental wellbeing are the subject of newspaper headlines, this increase in hours worked seems incongruous. Research carried out by Cardiff University and funded by IOSH (The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health) found that getting tired was identified by most seafarers as an underlying cause of shipboard depression. Other research, which has been highlighted by a recent North of England P&I Club report, shows that fatigue reduces wellbeing, is a major risk factor for mental health problems and increases the risk of acute illnesses, and life-threatening chronic disease.

Lean crewing

The current regulations are not difficult to understand or interpret. In layperson's terms it is 10 hours a day of rest as a minimum, which can be split into two, with one period of at least six hours uninterrupted. Over a period of seven days there must be a minimum of 77 hours rest, which equates to 11 rest hours per day.

Of course, there is always the small print, which excludes periods to complete statutory training, although this should intrude into rest periods as little as possible.

All relatively easy to understand and implement provided there is sufficient and suitable people for the job.

Yet crewing in modern ships has also reduced dramatically over the years. Forty years ago, at the beginning of the modern 4,000 TEU Panamax container ship era, it wasn't unusual for there to be a crew of 30-35.

The modern 400m, 20,000-plus TEU ultra-large container ship now has a minimum safe crewing of 12 or 13. There's a similar situation aboard product carriers, where a tanker of the 1980s would have a crew of 30-plus while modern tankers and bulkers have a crew of less than 20. 

To be 'lean crewed' may suit the shipowner economically, but is it safe?

The employer has benefited by almost 50% over the past 60 years, from an eight-hour day to a 13-hour day

The seafarer's perspective

Let's take the example of the deck department of one of the smaller vessels working around UK and European coastal ports. These vessels are also seen worldwide – container feeder ships, general cargo vessels, dredgers and the hundreds of coastal product and chemical tankers. 

In many of these vessels there may only be one master and one chief mate in the deck department. Many of these ships carry a second mate but these younger officers are recently qualified; while they may help with some of the duties they are often, regrettably, no more experienced than a senior cadet. Any work they do has to be monitored, checked, amended, and explained as part of their own learning process.

The master and chief mate must continue to work a six on six off routine and prioritise their port and admin duties. On the deck, there may be only three or four general purpose ratings, of whom three will be expected to watch keep and the fourth may also be acting as the cook, allowing the whole ship's company to be no more than eight in total.

The master is expected to receive the various port officials on arrival and prior to departure, process and acknowledge company orders, prepare appropriate paperwork, ensure compliance – and find a way to achieve sufficient rest. 

Prior to the sailing routines the chief mate must also have achieved sufficient rest – having met the pilot on arrival (regulations dictate the embarkation and disembarkation of the pilot should be under the control of an officer), secured the ship, met with the agent and stevedores, supervised the unloading and loading of cargo, inspected the hold or tanks, prepared a new navigational passage plan - this is not just a line or two on a paper chart or in the ECDIS but includes the appraisal and planning along with the execution and monitoring.

I would defy anyone to sign off a 14/10, 77 hours in a week hours of rest form without it identifying a deficiency somewhere.

Additional duties

At sea, the six on six off routine does not work as intended or advertised. On top of everything listed above, there are many additional roles at sea required of the deck officers. 

Every port state inspection will ask to see the planned maintenance system, the official logbooks and articles, the state of lifesaving equipment and firefighting equipment, the chart and digital publication corrections and the experience of the crew. 

All of these must be kept up to date, but when are the deck officers expected to complete all these additional tasks, when they can only be dealt with outside of watchkeeping routines? 

I suggest that shipowners should promote these additional tasks to be completed in the normal hours of work, while at the same time also demanding that the ship comply with the hours of rest as promulgated from the management ashore. 

Even completing the logbook at the end of a six-hour watch means that sufficient rest is not achieved. 

Don't forget the statutory drills and exercises mandated by regulations and the company safety management system (SMS). Every task completed on the ship must be risk assessed, a safe system of work (SSoW) written and a toolbox talk completed. Any identified risk needs to be reduced and most probably a permit to work must be written.

How and when are these important administrative tasks completed while also conducting a safe navigational watch?

Who onboard has the responsibility for the various chemicals carried and their associated CoSHH forms? 

Let us not forget that the catering officer/chief steward has long disappeared into the annals of history on smaller vessels. Who, therefore, is ordering the stores?

For modern day seafarers there is also more and more computer-based training courses. In my own company there is over 30 courses I am required to complete online. I cannot do this in my on-watch time, and not every course mandated by the company can be completed outside work periods as this impedes rest periods.

The list of routine jobs is long and what I have outlined above is by no means exhaustive. There are many more that I could have included. In addition, the master has overall responsibility for the ship, crew and environment, and the hours available have been completely expended.

What could possibly go wrong?

Keep all this in mind while reading the excellent Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) reports following incidents at sea.

While fatigue is often a cumulative factor for many crew members, this starts even before they step onboard the vessel.

Take the example of a crew member who has travelled for over 36 hours, trying to sleep on planes and in airports between transfers, getting through immigration and then either being transported from the airport straight to the ship or taken to a hotel for a few hours before being collected early for embarkation.  

Once onboard they will have to collect uniform and cabin keys, find luggage and cabins, undergo safety briefings, sign on articles, change into uniform, go through orientation and eat (although there is often no time for this). Then, for most, it is straight on to full working routines. In these cases the exhaustion is already there and is compounded day after day with work, drills, training, meetings, briefings and also a lack of sleep due to noisy cabins.  

The MAIB Bridge Watch-keeping Safety Study (2004) examined the association between fatigue-inducing working conditions and accidents, finding that minimal crewing leads to watchkeeper fatigue, the inability of the master to fulfil thier duties and ultimately to accidents. Results reported by Houtman et al. (2005) also confirm that fatigue may be a risk factor in collisions and groundings.

What can be done?

The flag state must ensure that the Safe Manning Document reflects the work routine of the ship, ignoring any pressure from the shipowner or their intimation that they may move the ship's flag of registry. In addition, they must identify sufficient personnel to safely crew, manage and maintain the ship to their expected standards and international conventions. 

The owner must put aside the commercial pressures of lean crewing to ensure that the ship runs both efficiently and effectively, to standards laid down in their own ISM SMS.

I had a regrettable experience where a company acknowledged the need for additional crew but insisted that they were paid for out of the current wage bill of the ship, with everyone required to take a pay cut.  

The threat of 'failure of any deficiency' to crew onboard must be removed from the management culture, and they should provide suitable and sufficiently experienced officers and crew run the ship in support of their company representative, the master. 

The master must never be placed in the invidious position of having to, or feeling pressured to alter the log in a 'culture of adjustment' just to satisfy the company and keep them looking squeaky clean when it comes to an ISM audit by the flag state for their Document of Compliance.

Fighting fatigue

The following is based on 'Adequate crewing and seafarers' fatigue: The international perspective' by Professor Andy Smith of Cardiff University (2006). It contains some startling conclusions about the risk of cumulative fatigue in seafarers and identifies that steps effective in reducing fatigue:

  • Proper implementation of the ISM code
  • Optimising the organisation of work on board vessels
  • Lengthening rest period
  • Reducing administrative tasks onboard vessels

In order of priority, the following measures are suggested:

  • Replacing the two-shift system with the three-shift system, with an additional crew member
  • Adding a crew member, but not an officer in charge (OIC), who will be able to take over some administrative tasks from the officer on watch or from the master
  • Changing the shift system into a more flexible one, with a rest period of at least eight hours
  • Identifying administrative tasks that can be carried out by the organisation ashore using IT facilities
  • Setting up the framework for a fatigue management tool/programme

What is clear is that effective, experienced and adequately rested crew produce an efficient, safe ship with a good safety culture, and the chance of an incident happening is greatly reduced. 


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